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COLUMN: Andre Young's Farewell Tour begins

Clemson senior starting point guard and Albany native Andre Young (11) fights for a loose ball during this past Sunday’s game against Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla. After four years with the Tigers — the last two as a starter — Young played his final regular-season game in a Clemson uniform. Young, a former Deerfield star, will leave the school in the Top 10 all-time in three categories: steals, 3-pointers and free-throw percentage. (Photo by Glenn Beil/Tallahassee Democrat)

Clemson senior starting point guard and Albany native Andre Young (11) fights for a loose ball during this past Sunday’s game against Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla. After four years with the Tigers — the last two as a starter — Young played his final regular-season game in a Clemson uniform. Young, a former Deerfield star, will leave the school in the Top 10 all-time in three categories: steals, 3-pointers and free-throw percentage. (Photo by Glenn Beil/Tallahassee Democrat)

CLEMSON, S.C. --- Andre Young admittedly did a lot of thinking on the long trip from Clemson, S.C., to Tallahassee, Fla., this past weekend before the Tigers played their regular-season finale against the Seminoles.

“My mind was racing. I thought about a lot of stuff,” Young told me outside the Clemson locker room after his Tigers lost the game, 80-72. “Four years sure has gone by pretty fast.”

That it has.

And sometime before the end of the month, it’ll all be over — a reality Young seemed to be at peace with this past Sunday after a game that he knew marked the beginning of the end of his college career.

“It’s been a great ride. No regrets,” said the Clemson starting point guard, whose Tigers (16-14, 8-8) — barring several back-to-back upsets in the ACC Tournament, which starts today when they open against Virginia Tech in Atlanta — likely won’t be included in the NCAA tourney field this season for the first time in Young’s four seasons. Instead, Clemson will probably have to settle for playing in the NIT, or CBI — one of the lower-tiered tournaments that’s usually only watched by die-hard fans and friends and family.

That would be quite an anti-climactic end to a career that has been great individually — Young will end in the Tigers’ Top 5 all-time in 3-point field goals and free-throw percentage and Top 10 all-time in steals — but the team never quite achieved the goals Young dreamed of when he signed with Clemson, which was one of probably 30 top Division I schools that recruited him.

And I remember that recruitment process well.

My sit-down with Andre and his father, Colie, in the summer of 2007 was one of the first big stories I worked on after arriving in Albany to take over as sports editor. I kept hearing about this amazing player who was about to enter his senior season and was likely going to be one of the most high-profile recruits to ever come out of this area.

So when we met at Deerfield that day, I started by asking the obvious question: “So, how many schools are giving you looks right now?”

Young just smiled and replied: “A lot.”

As a result, we came up with the idea to have Young sit at his kitchen table — surrounded by the many fancy recruitment letters sent out on each school’s letterhead and emblazoned with their logos — for a story we entitled, “Great to be Young.”

I asked Young about that story Sunday and, surprisingly, it managed to bring a smile to his face just moments after a tough loss to No. 22 FSU — a team the Tigers knew they should’ve beaten. After all, they’d already done so at home in Clemson earlier this year.

“Yeah, I definitely remember that,” Young said, his face now sporting a slight mustache he certainly didn’t have when we first met five years ago. “That was cool.”

Ultimately, Young chose Clemson over schools like Georgia, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Auburn and FSU because of his rapport when Tigers head coach Oliver Purnell, plus its great academic track record for the major he wanted to pursue, health science.

And while his course work the last four years has gone well — “The major’s been tough, but I liked it a lot. I’ll graduate this summer,” he told me Sunday — the relationship with Purnell was unexpectedly short-lived.

When Purnell recruited Young, he sold him on a dream of the Tigers building a program that would contend year-in and year-out for an ACC title.

Four years later, the Tigers haven’t really come close, while Purnell shockingly bolted at the end of Young’s sophomore season to take over a lowly DePaul program (12-19 in 2011-12) that he’s failed to make much of a difference at in his first two years. Young and Clemson then got a new coach, Brad Brownell, who came over from mid-major powerhouse Wright State and has done his best to begin rebuilding the program with a young cast, excluding Young and his two other fellow seniors.

One thing was for sure, however, when I asked Brownell about how he felt about Young’s impact on the program after Sunday’s loss to Florida State: The diminutive 5-foot-9 kid they’ve nicknamed “Andre the Giant” on the Clemson’s campus will surely be missed once he’s gone.

“He’s a really tough kid. He’s a good player. He’s a battler. He’s going to give you everything he’s got,” Brownell said. “At times he looks out of place out there because he’s so small. But, you know, he’s crafty. He’s smart. He’s tough. He can shoot. So that evens the playing floor really quickly. And we’re definitely going to miss him a lot next year.”

Brownell and Tiger Nation won’t be the only ones.

Young’s fan club from Albany — nearly 30 people in all — came down all decked out in their Clemson orange and purple this past Sunday for his final regular-season game. They happily made the 90-mile trip considering Tallahassee is almost a de facto home game for Young with it being the closest he plays to his hometown every season. Everyone sat directly behind the Clemson bench, cheering loudly when he was first introduced and after every one of the team-high 16 points he scored that afternoon. Among those attending were his father Colie, mother Drina, his three siblings — Amber, Trey and Tarah — as well as Young’s high school coach at Deerfield, Gordy Gruhl, who also made the trip with several other DWS teachers and coaches who grew to know and love Young during his time at the school.

Young was crafty to ensure everyong got a seat behind the Tigers’ bench, appealing to his teammates who weren’t using their allotted tickets to the FSU game.

“Absolutely (I asked them for their tickets),” he said with a laugh. “If they’re not going to use them, I’m going to use them.”

Among everyone who made the trip, Gruhl might’ve had the most team spirit that afternoon. He sported a bright and blinding orange T-shirt with the word “CLEMSON” written across the front in huge white letters, which is a far cry from the trademark outfit — black leather jacket, black shirt, black pants and black shoes — fans are used to seeing him sport when he stalks the sidelines while coaching at Deerfield.

And watching Young play for the final time in person carried with it mixed emotion for Gruhl.

“It’s sad (on the one hand). I’ve certainly enjoyed watching him play,” Gruhl said. “But he’s had a great career (at Clemson). It certainly doesn’t surprise me. I knew he’d do well.”

Gruhl and Deerfield retired Young’s No. 11 jersey in January after he left the school as its all-time leading scorer (2,062 points), despite starting only three of his four seasons.

“He was just one of those players that if you stay in it long enough you are fortunate to get one guy like that,” Gruhl said before the ceremony. “He was the consummate team player. The kid is a great student. The biggest thing about him is that I have never, in all the 28 years I have been here, seen somebody that everybody loves. The teachers loved him. The kids loved him. He was a great role model for the young players, and he left a great legacy. He set the bar for the teams behind him.”

He’s also done the same at Clemson, where he was named to the ACC’s All-Defensive First Team on Monday thanks to his league-leading 1.7 steals-per-game average. Young, a two-year-starter, was also a big reason the Tigers finishing the regular season second in the ACC, and in the Top 25 nationally, in scoring defense, yielding just 60.4 points per game. He is in the Top 10 in the ACC in six different statistical figures: first in steals, fourth in minutes per game, fifth in 3-point goals and 3-point percentage and seventh in assists per game.

Young also led the Tigers in scoring this year with 13.3 points per game, dropping double figures in 23 contests — including a career-high 29 points against Georgia Tech and two huge game-tying and game-winning 3-pointers to beat N.C. State in overtime.

But chances are, Colie Young would’ve traded in a few of those stats to watch his son go out on a winning note this past Sunday. Looking frustrated at times in the stands during the game as the Tigers fell behind by as many as 16 points, Colie told me afterwards he was feeling more “bitter than sweet” about watching one of Andre’s final outings in a Clemson uniform.

“We can definitely beat Florida State. We did beat them already,” he said in between shaking hands and thanking the crew from Albany, while saying his goodbyes to those who came to support Andre. “I don’t know if I would call it ‘bitter sweet’ because I don’t know where the sweet part is at. I hate losing. He could’ve scored 38 points (and I’d still be upset) because we lost. We’ve lost a lot of close ones. It’s tough.

“But looking back after a day like this (in his regular-season finale) if there’s a positive (about his career as a whole) it’s that he had an opportunity to play for a great school like Clemson and in the ACC — and that’s everybody’s dream.”

It was certainly a dream for Drina Young, who I found standing apart from a crowd after the game as she watched her son proudly receive pats, one-by-one, on the back from his friends, while taking countless pictures and thanking everyone for coming. When I asked her what kind of emotions she felt as she took in the heartfelt scene one final time, her voice quivered slightly and it took her a moment to find the words.

“Just to know this was (one of) his last games,” she said, pausing. “First of all, I wanted him to win, but I still feel happy that he’s done so well. I’m just so proud of him. We’re all proud of him.”

Drina Young estimated the family has made more than 20 trips from Albany to Clemson — that’s 10 hours and 602 miles round trip, for anyone who’s counting — but that every single visit was worth it.

“I got to watch him on senior night (in Clemson) be honored and hear the fans cheer so loudly for him, so that was nice. And I remember coming here (to Tallahassee) a couple of years ago and seeing him hit that half-court shot (before halftime),” Drina said. “Andre and I used to talk all the time about how some people thought he wasn’t strong enough or tall enough to play in college, but he never lost sight of his dream and he kept working hard. So it’s just a very proud moment to see what he’s been able to accomplish in four years. And I hope all young men who have someone telling them they can’t do this or that can look at Andre’s path and realize that if you want something bad enough, to never give up on your dreams, and you can make them happen.

“Just like Andre did.”

Last Sunday was the fourth time in four years I made the trip to watch Young play, and he always seems to have great games when he’s competing in front of his hometown fans so close to his native Albany. Being that I’m a Florida State alum and root inherently for the Seminoles, my emotions have tended to also be mixed when I attend these games. Because while I want to see Young play well, I’d never root for Florida State to lose at anything.

Although, I have to admit that with FSU leading late in the fourth quarter by just three points, 75-72, I started envisioning how cool it would be to see Young come down and drill a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime. And whatever happened from there I’d be OK with, win or lose for FSU.

Had it played out that way, it would’ve not only extended Young’s farewell tour for at least a few more minutes — something everyone from Albany who was in the Donald L. Tucker Center that afternoon would’ve undoubtedly loved — but it also would’ve extended a great game that saw Clemson rally back from double digits in the second half and nearly pull off the upset.

Instead, Young missed that 3-pointer, then followed that up with an errant pass that was stolen with just seconds left in the game.

“It’s tough to end (the regular season) on a losing note,” Young said as we talked outside the locker room. “But it’s not over yet. We’ve still got the ACC Tournament, and I think we can make a run there.”

If that doesn’t happen, Young said he’ll settle for graduating with his degree and give thanks for his time at Clemson, as well as the opportunity the school gave him to get an education. Then he’ll move on.

And whether that’s in the health science field, or playing basketball professionally, remains to be seen.

But Young is certain of one thing about the last four years of his life.

“It’s really been a great ride,” he said again. “No regrets at all.”